You hear the opening chords — a sad, mournful take on "Jingle Bells" — and you know right away that mommy won't be kissing Santa Claus in this tune.
Then comes Joni Mitchell's plaintive voice, and if Christmas season is underway, and you're feeling a little melancholy, and you've been subjected to nothing but cheerful holiday songs urging you to feel merry and bright, you just might think you've found a kind of refuge.
You might even decide that "River" is the greatest Christmas song ever recorded. Never mind that it was probably never intended to be a Christmas song.
"River" was released in 1971, on Mitchell's landmark album "Blue." Like a lot of people who came of age years later, I discovered the album in my late teens. My older brother had a copy, and I'm pretty sure I first heard it spinning on his turntable. I had a beginner's understanding of love and grief, and up until that point, I'd been listening to a lot of '80s New Wave — in hindsight, probably too much.
I picked up my own copy and listened to it obsessively. Its lyrics exploring love affairs and disappointments, set to achingly spare arrangements, felt as though they were ripped from Mitchell's diary. They still do.
"At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses," she once said of the album. "I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy."
Or to be merry, as the case may be.
The song makes only one explicit reference to Christmas:
It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on
Over her brooding piano, Mitchell sings of being selfish and sad, and "losing the best baby that I ever had." You wonder if she's singing about the daughter she gave up for adoption, but then she mentions the man who "loved me so naughty / made me weak in the knees."
Is it a reference to Graham Nash? James Taylor, who recorded his own haunting version of the song and was one of Mitchell's beaus, has said even he doesn't know. No matter.
The best songs don't grow old as you grow older. In fact, they might even take on new meaning. "River" hasn't always affected me the way it does now. Two decades have passed since it first offered me a counterpoint to merrier Christmas tunes. I'm not sure I needed the song back then. But I've grown into my 40s. I've experienced more grief and loss. Christmas can still be a time of joy, but not always.
"River" reminds us that it's OK to feel a whole range of emotions during the holidays. It's the perfect Christmas song to skate away on.